Daniel J. Nodes

title.none: Martin: Friar, Reformer and Renaissance Scholar

identifier.other: baj9928.9309.002 93.09.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel J. Nodes, Conception Seminary College

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1993

identifier.citation: Martin, Francis X. , OSA. Friar, Reformer, and Renaissance Scholar: Life and Works of Giles of Viterbo 1469-1532. Villanova, PA: Augustinian Press, 1992. Pp. 423; with foreword, appendices and index.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 93.09.02

Martin, Francis X. , OSA. Friar, Reformer, and Renaissance Scholar: Life and Works of Giles of Viterbo 1469-1532. Villanova, PA: Augustinian Press, 1992. Pp. 423; with foreword, appendices and index.

Reviewed by:

Daniel J. Nodes
Conception Seminary College

Francis Martin, who has, arguably, done more than anyone this century to bring to light the life and work of Giles of Viterbo, presents a revision of his Cambridge dissertation of 1959. Its publication long delayed by ongoing revision and the author's academic and administrative duties at University College, Dublin, the new edition comes to light under very favorable conditions. Together with studies by Eugenio Massa, Francois Secret, and John O'Malley, SJ, Martin's dissertation has given direction to most of the later scholarship on Giles, which has been increasing steadily over the past thirty years. As O'Malley observes in his foreword, the book recapitulates much recent work on Giles. It was a point of departure, and now it is the beneficiary of some of the scholarship it inspired. Martin's continuing dedication to the subject and his inspiration of others is reflected in the translations of several of Giles' writings provided in the appendices.

Giles of Viterbo is a complex figure, partly because of the many roles he played, partly because of the diverse cultural traits his writings and the record of his life exhibit. Contrasting elements, public and private, active and contemplative, secular and spiritual, often vie for the attention of biographers. Martin's description of Giles as "a Renaissance person with none of Erasmus' disdain for relics" is intelligent. Owing to the cultural climate of his Italy, Giles was revered by some of his contempories for his religious as well as secular learning, and his ability to read Christian teachings into the Greek and Roman myths. By others, however, Giles was just another paganizer of the Gospel. Similarly, despite evidence that Giles took interest in practical matters, as, Martin notes, when in 1508 he preached to the prostitutes of Rome, he has commonly been cast as a man of ivory-tower abstractions, "a polished priest of Renaissance circles." A zealous reformer who kept his allegiance to papal authority, Giles has nevertheless suffered from neglect by historians of the Augustinian order largely because as prior general from 1511-1518 he was Martin Luther's superior. Martin attempts to determine the proper balance among these images, the one that corresponds closest to the primary evidence.

The book's eight chapters follow chronological order, with chapter headings as signposts for some dominant role, or background to a role, that Giles played (Friar and Scholar, Preacher, Unwilling Protege of Julius II, The Augustinian Observant Movement, Prior General and Reformer, Renaissance Person, Scripture Scholar, Death and Legacy). This arrangement and labling, however, should not lead one to think that Giles passed from role to role with equal vigor as his life progressed. Martin in fact works hard to present the various strands of Giles' life as mutually influential. If there was a principal driving force in Giles' life, in Martin's eyes it is the zeal for reform.

Chapter One begins with a brief treatment of Giles as a student in Padua. Martin observes that despite residence at that center of Aristotelian studies, what deeply moved Giles was reform and spiritual revival, where Platonism was to be the greater shaping force. Soon after publishing three works on Giles of Rome, he went to study with Marsilio Ficino in Florence, toward a cultivation of the theologia platonica against Averroistic Aristotelianism. During his examination at Rome for the magisterium in theology, his platonic reading of Christian theology disturbed several of the examiners. Giles was soon to devote himself to writing a lengthy sentence commentary ad mentem Platonis, which he was to continue working on to 1512.

Giles had begun preaching in 1493, and Chapter Two traces Giles' call to Rome four years later to preach before Pope Alexander VI. His year-long sojourn at the papal court was later to be reinforced by the witnessing of political intrigue in Naples, and the combined effect was to encourage Giles to look for solitude among the community of monks at Lecceto near Siena. After having been a guest there in 1499, he returned to join the community in 1503. In the late 14th century this monastery had been selected as the flagship for reform and was to be a strong shaping force for Giles. In 1506, after his appointment as vicar general, Giles was to look again to this monastery to promote his own reform efforts. Martin here traces the development of the Augustinian hermits, the Augustinian reform movement, and the leading role played by the community of Lecceto. The reader comes to understand better a Giles filled with the reform spirit and longing for the contemplative life, but possessing extraordinary oratorical skills and classical as well as biblical erudition, and therefore increasingly in demand as a preacher throughout Italy. This is Giles, as Martin portrays him, on the eve of his election as prior general.

Chapters Three through Five focus on Giles at the dawn of the Reformation, the vote of confidence he received at Naples, where he was elected prior general, his gaining of privileges for his order, and his partial conciliation in 1510-11 with the Saxon Augustinians, represented by Martin Luther. Giles was later to withdraw in his bid to unite the observants and conventuals of Germany, an administrative failure which Martin ascribes not to weakness but to a desire to "preserve charity." Since Giles' correspondence shows that he could, at least on paper, be firm, even uncharitable, with resistors, it is fair to speculate whether he had simply met his match in Luther. Martin nevertheless finds it possible to speculate whether Luther would have chosen a different course of action in 1517 if he were then dealing with "a papal legate as understanding or persuasive as Giles."

Chapter Six considers Giles "the Renaissance person." Martin takes the opportunity to trace the literature on Giles from the sixteenth century to the present, since most portraits composed before 1900, and several after, feature his humanist tendencies, and, as Martin puts it, describe "a cultured though virtuous Renaissance prelate, the polished orator, the Ciceronian stylist, and accomplished poet, a pioneer biblical scholar astray in cabalistic intellectual jackdaw." Despite a note of hyperbole in praise and blame (he is too critical of Eugenio Massa, a fellow pioneer in Egidian studies) Martin's survey of secondary literature here, along with his article, "The Problem of Giles of Viterbo," (Augustiniana, 1959, 1960), provides a valuable starting point for scholars. The survey is not intended to be exhaustive, however. Martin himself admits of an increasing number of studies devoted to Giles on a yearly, almost monthly, basis.

In Chapter Seven, Martin describes Giles' interest in scriptural studies as a steady progression, with his election as prior general in 1507 bringing about a "conversion" in earnest. Even before then, however, in Naples, Giles was dedicated to promoting Christian doctrine, according to Martin. Failure to see this is due to a distorted sense of how Giles developed there, since the emphasis has been on Giles as a member of Pontano's literary circle. Martin accepts the testimony that under Giles' influence, Pontano himself gained faith and a Christian perspective. Martin points to Pontano's decision to study Augustine's De immortalitate animae at Giles recommendation. Martin makes too much of this, however, as it would hardly require a conversion to Christian morals and doctrine for Pontano to take an interest in De immortalitate, one of Augustine's most philosophical writings. As for Giles' continued reading of Plato, Homer, and Virgil, Martin suggests that Giles was dedicated to scriptural truth but "his thought process and imagery still belonged to the classical world." It was only gradually that Athens was to yield to Jerusalem. Giles would abandon his platonic commentary and a universal history as witness not only to his administrative duties but also to his new devotion to Scripture and scriptural lore in the form of the Jewish mystical writings.

The brief Chapter Eight describes Giles' successful mission to the court of Spain to win support from King Charles for a crusade. When Leo X died in 1521, Giles was papabilis, a serious candidate for the papacy. Martin surmises that despite Giles' erudition and reputation for wisdom and moral virtue, his support of the religious orders and, ironically, his lack of a faction among the cardinals destroyed his chances of gaining the election. Reflecting on Giles' last years as pastor of Viterbo, Martin notes that, judging from Giles' biographers, one would think that Giles died without resolving for himself "the current momentous problems of grace, faith, justification and spiritual authority." Yet Martin points to certain evidence suggesting that Giles was resolved in his rejection of Luther's ideas. The evidence, however, consists only of a testimony of Clerk, the English envoy at Rome, who commented that Giles had high regard for King Henry VIII's book against Luther. Other evidence is bibliographical: an Austrian polemical work against Luther dedicated to Giles, and Montfaucon's catalog of a section of the Royal Library at Paris, noting that Giles owned three manuscripts dealing with the Lutheran controversy. The catalog suggests that one of the three was composed by Giles himself. While such evidence is helpful, it cannot locate precisely Giles' theological stance on the burning issues of his time. The real challenge in understanding Giles' theology appears to lie in the abundant material that has recently been edited or is still unedited and without detailed scholarly investigation.

It is helpful, therefore, to have the sample of orations, letters, sermons and poems in translation in the appendices, edited by John Rotelle, OSA. The selections contain reprints of previously published materal, some new documents, and some of the proceedings of the international congress on Giles held in Rome and Viterbo in 1982. The editor states as his purpose the "offering and preserving the richness and diversity of Giles of Viterbo's thought." While providing only a partial survey of the range of Giles' output, the selections do contain evidence of Giles as friar, reformer, and Renaissance scholar. The quality of the notes accompanying the selections varies.

The portrait of Giles that this book attempts to develop is sensitive to the complex nature of the subject. Giles here is very much the product of a complex age, and a product, not the creator, of the reform movement. While Martin remains friendly toward Giles, absent is much of the sentimentality of the earlier biography by Signorelli. Here the young Giles wants scholarly leisure for less than ascetical reasons. His fallacy, as Martin puts it, was that this cross was one of his own choosing. Martin himself has an occasional tendency to moralize, as, for example, when he discusses Giles' dealings with "men and women of evil repute" (pp. 50-51). Absent too are the impressions of Giles as the intellectual man of abstractions, and the paganizer. Martin in fact is a strong advocate for Giles' Christian purpose. With particular reference to Giles' Eclogues, Martin argues that Giles was "attempting to Christianize the pagan world of the classics rather than allowing the spirit of the classical authors to permeate his religious thought." Readers of Giles can come to accept this, although the distinction Martin makes between pagan and Christian cannot stand everywhere in Giles.

The book is lucidly written and carefully printed, although Chapter Two contains a few misspellings in text and notes. Throughout the book readers will note numerous repetitions of information, largely because the text has been culled from various sources.